Ed Dunlop: 'Do I wake up and think: "God, you're lucky?" I used to'

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Ed Dunlop was bred to train a Derby winner and today may do so. Chris McGrath meets a man who has made the most of his chances

Once again, he finds himself the eye of the storm – this lofty, languid figure peering over the heady tumults of the Turf.

This time, anticipation of Native Khan's challenge for its most famous prize has been complicated by an incendiary legal sensation between the colt's owner and former jockey. But it will take rather more than that to shake Ed Dunlop from the placidity he has learnt in far less ephemeral ordeals.

At times, after all, this mild, reflective man has been thrust into hapless, violent changes of direction by bloodshed and tragedy. But there have also been occasions, as for anyone who trains racehorses for a living, when the turning points proved less flagrant.

It is little over a year since Dunlop sidled into the throng around the sales ring at Tattersalls, just across town from his Newmarket stables. A young grey colt and his attendant were circling before the usual crowd of bloodstock agents and trainers, speculators and spectators. Lot 77. Dunlop was besotted, and fed up. He had tried all his best patrons, but none seemed interested in trying for the son of Azamour. Dunlop watched glumly to see which of his rivals would end up taking home the prize.

But what was this? There was Ibrahim Araci, one of his own clients, matching every new bid. The digital display above the auctioneer showed a jumble of currencies, jumping in parallel. Araci nodded again: 180,000 guineas. The agent duelling with him finally turned away, and the gavel fell. Araci saw Dunlop. "I told you I would get you a good one!" he said.

Today that colt lines up as second only to the Queen's Carlton House among the home Derby fancies. It is the first time Dunlop has had a genuine chance in the race, but he could hardly be more comfortable with his momentous assignment. For one thing, even though he is still only 42, he has already been training for nearly 18 years. And he has twice won the fillies' equivalent, the Oaks – with the magnificent Ouija Board, in 2004, and last year with Snow Fairy. But he had been steeped in the lore of Epsom since boyhood.

He was nine when his father, John, trained Shirley Heights to win the 1978 Derby. Charles O'Brien, son of the great Vincent, was at the same prep school. "When they won the Derby, which was quite regularly, Vincent and Jacqueline used to send cake and ice cream for all of us to have at tea," Dunlop remembered this week. "So my parents did the same. That I do remember, vividly."

John is still training, at 71, down in Arundel – a grandee of the sport, and a formidable survivor in every respect. "He wouldn't like me saying this but he should be dead, really," Dunlop observed. "He was that ill when his aorta burst [in 2001]. He showed such will to get better. Even now, he will swim every morning in an ice-cold swimming pool. Last year he broke his foot, which caused him real pain. He can't ride a hack any more. That was his passion, riding out three lots every day, whatever the weather, no hat on. But I'll always remember him saying: 'Dick Hern trained from a wheelchair. I'll be fine.'"

His father's fortitude had been hardened in a horrible forge. During Dunlop's last term at Eton, his older brother, Tim, was killed in a car accident in Chantilly. Tim had been learning their father's trade. "We'd sort of presumed that it would all be geared towards Tim," Dunlop said. "When he was killed, I will never forget my father writing to me afterwards and saying there was no pressure on me whatsoever."

Dunlop had been riding work at 11, but was already too tall to do so by 16. With Tim's vocation apparently clear, Dunlop "took a little bit of a black sheep approach, did my own thing". But he eventually found a job with Nicky Henderson, the top jumps trainer, and was sent to Hereford on Grand National day with a new owner. Even his elementary duties proved excessive: the weight cloth fell out of the saddle. Even so, he developed sufficient aptitude to be hired as assistant to Alex Scott, a young Newmarket trainer who was making a big impression on the Flat. Dunlop planned to spend three years with Scott, before returning to Arundel, where the old man would some day hand over the reins.

But then another loathsome, gory shock: in 1994 Scott, father of three children under six, was murdered by a former employee. The yard's owner, Sheikh Maktoum, decided that Scott's composed young assistant, the Dunlop boy, should be given a chance. The ruler of Dubai sat him down and told him there was no pressure. Dunlop was 25. The following spring he won the French 1,000 Guineas with Ta Rib.

All these years later, the perennial incongruity remains. Here he is, his boyish aspect undiminished by the steady disappearance of that swoop of blond hair, the 6ft 5in frame still supple and unobtrusive, his insouciance measured four days before the Derby by an afternoon of cricket. The cadences of his conversation are easy and wry. He stands as a triumph over the horrors that hastened his emergence.

"I had to grow up pretty fast," he reflected. "I was 18 when my brother was killed, and hadn't a clue what I was going to do with my life. I was playing cricket, not working very hard for my A levels. I'm now 42, and the oldest of my children is 14. I regularly think about what my parents must have gone through. As with any parent who outlives a child, you can't imagine it. Tim and I grew up together, we did everything together, racing, riding, playing cricket in the nets at home. And it was awful. But time is a healer. I don't look at him and think he should be training now, and not me. I don't do that at all. It was so long ago.

"Scotty obviously was my boss. Julia, his wife, has been unbelievable the way she has raised her children, all very successful in what they do. Again, think of what she went through... But I was asked expressly by Julia to carry on with the yard, and I had so many people help me.

"Do I wake up and think: 'God, you're lucky'? I used to. Of course people were jealous of what I had, this platinum spoon in my mouth, the opportunities I was given. But my priorities are very different now – running a business, survival in tricky times, my family, all the usual."

His achievements since are perhaps best condensed by the fact that both Ouija Board and Snow Fairy went on to far greater things after the Oaks. Ouija Board won another six Group One prizes over three seasons, notably two at the Breeders' Cup. And where most trainers would have wrapped up Snow Fairy after a gruelling Classic campaign, Dunlop got it into his head to send her off to Japan and Hong Kong. She won two prodigiously valuable prizes, looking better than ever each time.

After a minor injury, Snow Fairy will soon resume her career. Whatever happens now, she has already performed a critical service to her trainer. Between the arrival in the yard of his two Oaks winners, Dunlop had met yet another crossroads in the death of Sheikh Maktoum. Given time by the sheikh's brothers, Dunlop went to the banks and the estate agents. At the end of 2008, he moved across town to La Grange Stables, a Victorian yard that has housed the winners of several Classics and a Grand National. Into the icy headwinds of the recession, he has flung daunting sums at the property and its renovation.

"We took the plunge at the height of the market," he said. "The place was not in very good condition, and I was used to a state-of-the-art yard. But after two and a half years of work, the majority of my clients are saying how much they prefer it here."

These include Lord Derby, whose ancestors gave us today's race. Ouija Board ran in his colours, and likewise her first foal when he won at Haydock a few days ago. But controversial plans for the development of his estate in Newmarket have poisoned his relationship with much of its professional community. Dunlop maintains due neutrality, but the two men have become good friends and he finds the whole situation very sad. As such, he is hardly going to let the melodrama between Araci and Kieren Fallon wreck his Derby.

One way or another, these are seasoned hands. The dynasty savagely robbed of one heir has guaranteed its legacy. The younger brother, Harry, is also training. Yes, Native Khan was bludgeoned by Henry Cecil's astonishing colt, Frankel, in the Guineas; and now he must try to prevent Sir Michael Stoute winning a sixth Derby with Carlton House. But there is every incentive for Dunlop to pile up the chips on La Grange.

"I'm not really one of the youngsters," he protested. "I've been doing this for a while now, believe it or not. But the senior trainers won't be going on for ever. And senior owners won't, either. There will be huge changes in the industry. I've been very fortunate in the support I've had, but I hope horses like this can attract the new generation, too.

"It's all about surviving. It's not a case of poor old Ed Dunlop, with his 80 horses. But we've got huge loans, and we're always trying to improve our yard. We have to keep the numbers up, or go under. Now we're rowing our own canoe, we have to row it the right direction.

"We've found ourselves in the year of Frankel, and the year of everyone wanting the Queen to win the Derby. But the great thing is that we've come under the radar. And, touch wood, this is the first time we might be competitive – the first time we're dreaming we might win."

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